Epic Secrets About the Making of The Terminator

It's been 35 years since Arnold Schwarzenegger's beefy murderous cyborg promised he'd be back

By Natalie Finn Oct 26, 2019 11:00 AMTags
The Terminator, Arnold SchwarzeneggerOrion/Kobal/Youtube

The T-800 promised he'd be back.

And he did indeed return, time and again, in one form or another, but as the better half of the soulless cyborg coin.

It's now been 35 years since the promise was made in The Terminator, starring a 37-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger as the original killing machine, sent from the apocalyptic future of 2029 to wipe out the hope of resistance in the form of yet-to-be-born freedom fighter John Connor's mother, Sarah Connor. 

Though he was a machine of few words, the iconic part cemented Schwarzenegger's status as an action superstar in the making, well on his way to becoming "Ah-nuld," no other introduction needed.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's Big Movies

James Cameron, then a frustrated filmmaker who'd just been fired off of Piranha II: The Spawning, wrote the script while crashing on a friend's floor in Pomona, Calif.

He brought the story to his agent, who hated it and told him to work on something else. So, Cameron fired his agent.

And the rest is sci-fi history. Here are some epic secrets about the making of The Terminator:

According to Rebecca Keegan's 2009 book The Futurist, after firing his vision-lacking agent, James Cameron sold the rights to his script for $1 to Gale Ann Hurd, a former assistant of B-movie king Roger Corman who had discovered Cameron working in the art department at New World, after obtaining the equivalent of a pinkie swear that she would only produce the movie if he directed it.

Hurd kept her promise, even in the face of studio execs who tried to push Cameron aside.

"And I have a career as a result," Cameron told Keegan. "So I've never really regretted that decision, although it was costly financially." 

Cameron and his first wife, Sharon Williams, divorced in 1984 and the following year he married Gale Ann Hurd, who in addition to The Terminator would also produce Aliens, The Abyss and, after their divorce in 1989, Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Having given some notes and to strengthen their two-person pitch, Hurd has a "with" screenwriting credit on The Terminator. In 2009 Cameron admitted it still irked him that many assumed that his badass female heroine was Hurd's creation. "She did no actual writing at all," he told Keegan.

Meaning, he didn't make any money from the films in the Terminator universe that he didn't direct or produce, or the theme park rides, merchandise, or video games.

"I chalked it up to the cost of a Hollywood education," the director of Avatar and Titanic, the third- and sixth-highest-grossing films of all time, said.

Cameron had his friend Lance Henriksen, who he knew from Piranha II, dress up as the Terminator character for the pitch to potential financier John Daly at Hemdale Pictures in 1982. Henriksen burst through the office door, scaring the receptionist to death, and sat there in menacing silence for 15 minutes till Cameron came in.

It worked, and Daly agreed to $6 million in financing as a team with distributor Orion Pictures and HBO.

Cameron at first thought Henriksen would make a good Terminator, conceived as a machine disguised as a person who infiltrates the human resistance in 2029, but ultimately the actor ended up playing Detective Hal Vukovich in The Terminator. They'd work together again when the veteran "that guy!" reprised the role of Bishop for Aliens.

It was Orion Pictures co-founder Mike Medavoy who brought Arnold Schwarzenegger to Cameron as a possible Kyle Reese, opposite football hero turned actor O.J. Simpson as The Terminator. 

"Then somehow [James Cameron] felt that he was not as believable for a killing machine," Schwarzenegger quipped to London's Independent in October 2019. "So then they hired me. That's really what happened."

But Simpson was attached enough at first that Cameron drew up some concept art featuring the athlete, which Schwarzenegger still has to this day.

"On the painting that I have at home—it was painted by Jim Cameron," he revealed. "Underneath my face is actually O.J. Simpson's face. It was already painted on it, with the leather jacket and the gun in the hand."

Cameron didn't think much of Arnold Schwarzenegger's dramatic potential when he met him, the former Mr. Olympia's biggest part to date being Conan the Barbarian, which relied primarily on his musculature for effect.

Cameron remembered to Men's Journal asking how much acting experience he had and the 37-year-old Austrian replied, "It does not matter. I intend to be a movie star like Clint Eastwood and Sylvester Stallone."

"I'm hearing this and thinking, 'Dude, that is so unlikely,'" the director said. "It's basically like saying, 'See this lottery ticket I just bought? I'm gonna win.' Yet once you know Arnold better, you know he just makes things happen."

It was Schwarzenegger, even when he was supposed to be proving he could play the hero, who made a better case for himself as the villain.

"I spoke much more enthusiastically about the Terminator character," he recalled to Keegan, "about how he has to handle weapons, to be always like a machine."

"He's a machine," Schwarzenegger said in relaying the now classic story to Men's Health in 2019. "So everything has to be matter-of-fact. I told Jim that. I said there should be no joy, no gratification, no kind of victory lap of any sort. Just the mission, complete. I go through these points. Jim, afterward, says to me, 'F--k, you analyze it better than the way I have written it. Why don't you play the Terminator?'"

The next day Cameron went to producer John Daly and said he'd found his Terminator, so the hunt for Kyle Reese continued.

Then Arnold paused. "I said, 'The Terminator only says 27 lines,'" he told Men's Health. Luckily for all involved, he checked his ego.

"People really admired the character, because he was able to do things they all wanted to do," Schwarzenegger explained. "Everyone wants to wipe out a police station when they get mad at the police. We had a test screening. We showed it to 50 cops. They all applauded when I wiped out the police station—because it was not a human being doing it, it was the machine doing it."

Sting was asked about playing the pivotal role of Kyle Reese, the resistance fighter sent from the future to protect Sarah Conner and, incidentally, be the father of her son, John, but he had a world tour coming up.

And sci-fi fans still got to see the Police frontman on the big screen in 1984, in the adaptation of Frank Herbert's cult classic Dune.

The list of actors who were considered, according to Terminator Vault, included Mel Gibson, Matt Dillon, Kurt Russell and Tommy Lee Jones, as well as rocker Bruce Springsteen.

Sylvester Stallone and Mel Gibson—Rambo and Mad Max, respectively—both turned down the Terminator role.

Coincidentally, production on The Terminator ended up delayed while Schwarzenegger shot Conan the Destroyer, allowing Cameron time for a new writing job: the script for Rambo: First Blood Part II.

When Michel Biehn was approached about auditioning to play Kyle Reese, he asked who else was in the movie. So far, Arnold.

"He was a body builder and he had done Conan and he was not considered an actor by any long stretch of the imagination," Biehn told Ain't It Cool News in 2011. "Most people thought he wouldn't have a career because he could never really speak English and say things like 'California' very well. Nobody really thought he was going to have much of a career."

Working with Jim Cameron, fired director of Piranha II, didn't sound all that enticing, either.

"Then I went in," Biehn said. "I met Jim and auditioned for him and I got the role and I knew very quickly that Jim was special. I mean, I didn't know he was going to make a movie that we would be talking about 30 years later, that there would be four sequels to, or that it would become so iconic, but that's how I got involved in it."

Linda Hamilton remembered Jennifer Jason-Leigh, fresh from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, being the other main contender to play Sarah Connor, a 19-year-old waitress with barely a care in the world until she finds out she's being hunted by an indestructible assassin from the future.

Michael Biehn, however, said he read first with Rosanna Arquette and then with Hamilton, after which he and Hamilton became Kyle and Sarah.

According to the 2013 book Terminator Vault: The Complete Story Behind the Making of The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Arquette wanted $250,000, and that was deemed too much.

Schwarzenegger spent three months training with all sorts of guns, so he'd know how they worked and also to feel more comfortable around them, according to Keegan.

Biehn trained in karate and got in shape to play a guy who could conceivably hold his own against Arnold but still look like someone who would believably have a romance with Sarah.

Days before they were due to start shooting, Hamilton broke a bone and tore ligaments in her foot. "But we stuck it out," she told MTV News in 2009, when she was named one of their Greatest Movie Badasses of All Time.

Hamilton didn't just have a pain in her foot.

"Jimbo and I did not get along very well," Hamilton recalled. "I left The Terminator saying, 'That man is definitely rooting for the machines.' He was not geared towards the human experience. He's the only person I've ever taken off the set and yelled at. Everybody could hear me. I just blew up. I was like, 'If you want to see a human being on the screen, you better start treating me like a human being!'"

Fittingly, the message on Sarah's answering machine canceling their date for that night is Cameron's voice.

The dynamic wasn't so bad. Hamilton returned as Sarah in 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and she ended up moving in with James Cameron after his marriage to third wife Kathryn Bigelow ended.

Cameron and Hamilton welcomed daughter Josephine in 1993, married in 1997 and divorced in 1999.

Arnold actually bulked up for the role of the T-800, hitting the gym daily (which he still does 35 years later but not to the same extent) and eating "anything that's in the kitchen sink," he recalled recently to Men's Health about his eating habits when he was younger. "Anything you can find on the kitchen floor. Just scrape it up, put it in there, and I will love it."

Cameron's script described Sarah Connor as "pretty in a flawed, accessible way. She doesn't stop the party when she walks in, but you'd like to get to know her. Her vulnerable quality masks a strength she doesn't know exists."

He later explained to Keegan, "In writing I like to be fresh, and at the time of Terminator, that kind of female character hadn't really been done."

According to The Sci Guy, the Terminator's computer vision is (and we quote) "a dump of the ROM assembler code for the Apple II operation system. If you own an Apple II, enter at the basic prompt: ] call -151 * p This will give you the terminator view. Other code visible is written in COBOL."

That's some Cyberdyne Systems Corp.-level stuff right there.

The terminator that Kyle Reese is seen battling in 2029 was played by Schwarzenegger's longtime friend, fellow Mr. Olympia and training buddy Franco Columbu, who also appeared in Conan the Barbarian and The Running Man.

Arnold and Franco first met in Germany in 1965 and worked as bricklayers together when they first moved to America, while Schwarzenegger pursued a career in Hollywood. They remained close until Franco's death in August 2019 in his native Sardinia.

"The pumps, the chess games, the construction work, the meals, the pranks, the life lessons—we did it all together," Schwarzenegger wrote in tribute on Medium to the man he called his "best friend." "We grew and we learned and we loved. My life was more fun, more colorful, and more complete because of you."

Arnold asked if he could say "I will be back" at the police station window instead of "I'll be back," because he was having trouble pronouncing the contraction "I'll."

Cameron refused, but ensured his star he'd use the best possible take in the final cut.

Good choice, as "I'll be back" became iconic and was ranked No. 37 on American Film Institute's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes.

Schwarzenegger and Hamilton are teaming up again, 28 years after Terminator 2: Judgment Day came out, for the Cameron-produced, Tim Miller-directed Terminator: Dark Fate, which although Arnold appeared in two more non-Cameron movies in this universe (but refused a cameo in Terminator Salvation), is being treated as the latest chapter for these characters after T2.

"[Cameron] likes to tell people that he gave me all the reasons not to do it because he knows my very nature is to go, 'F--k you, I'm doing it,' but that's not true," Hamilton told NME. "Ultimately it was the passage of time that allowed me to go, 'Hmm, I get to fill in 27 years here.'"

The T-800 is again a force for good and Gabriel Luna is the Terminator that's hell-bent on destruction, the Rev-9, which can separate its endoskeleton from its liquid metal body and...oh goodness, how will they defeat it?!

"There are moments where you kind of feel sorry for Terminator, for the T-800," Schwarzenegger told Men's Health. "It's like, 'I hope he gets destroyed, but I hope he wins against this.'"

Oh...right. That dastardly chip.

Made for about $6.4 million, The Terminator made $38 million domestically and $78 million worldwide, earning it sleeper hit status.

"But to give you some perspective," Michael Biehn told Ain't It Cool News, "the same year [Karate Kid] made $90 million, so it was a hit, but it wasn't like this huge, huge hit. 1984 is when it came out, that's when most people started getting their VHS players and I think that that's really where that movie took off. Everybody saw it on VHS."

Biehn reunited with Cameron for Aliens and The Abyss.

"I have come to terms with the fact that I will always be Linda 'The Terminator' Hamilton," the actress told MTV News in 2009, probably never envisioning she and her biceps would be reporting back for duty 10 years later. "I go out in the world and people just scream, 'I love you!' That's a great job description. It's wonderful to have done something that will live longer than me."

Time for a new generation to join the cause.